The bookstore sits by the edge of the highway that slows down as it arcs through through the tiny town. The building is sunken by a few feet, so the windows look out at ground level. As for the store, it consists of a main room that is the size of an average suburban living room, with a couple of smaller secondary rooms and a long hallway where they serve the ice cream, hot drinks and baked goods. The walls are lined with the the cracked spines of thousands of used books, and the familiar smell of yellowing pages mingles on the stale air with the heavy scent of dark roast.
In a town with as much musical talent and appreciation as Nederland, Colorado, pretty much any public space can be turned into a makeshift performance venue. And so at Blue Owl Books (not to be confused with Boulder Bookstore, where I collect a pay cheque every two weeks), music happens most Saturday nights and one Thursday a month. The Thursday gig is always filled by the same duo, a local married couple named Billy and Jill who we went to see tonight. I had never seen them play together, although I've seen the husband work his flat-picking magic a time or two with his other band. You see, Billy Nershi is the singer and lead guitar player for the String Cheese Incident, and the String Cheese Incident is a band that I have traveled high and low to watch work their magic over the better part of a decade. My most recent "Incident" was this past summer in Rothbury, Michigan along with 20, 000 of my fellow Cheeseheads. Given that I am used to seeing Billy playing with the Cheese in front of thousands, I was thrilled to get the tip-off from a co-worker that he and Jill would be at the bookstore tonight.
We arrived just as they were warming up in the main room - two musicians, two guitars and one completely unnecessary microphone. Benches had been brought in to handle the crowd, though the event turned into standing room only once the eighteenth and nineteenth spectators arrived. We positioned ourselves on the second bench back, with Sarah sitting right next to the bed where the shop's resident cat slept during most of the show. After a quick warm up and friendly greeting (more "Hi there, friends" than "Hello Cleveland!") the Nershis settled into two wonderful sets of bluegrass and country standards, folk songs and a couple of String Cheese favourites. I have been in dorm room jam sessions that have had more people in attendance, and the intimate setting lent itself more to the vibe of friends picking in a basement than a formal performance. Granted, formality has a way of going right out the door as soon as the performers start passing their bottle of tequila around among the audience.
There is magic to be seen in watching someone play music for the sheer joy of it, and there was to be no questioning of Billy's motives tonight. He could have been playing to a hundred times more people down the road in Boulder, but you could tell there was no place he'd rather be than in front of fogged windows in a drafty bookstore with his wife singing harmony and twenty friends chiming in whenever they knew the words. The man's smile was as contagious as it was natural, and when he sang "I've been spinning 'round the wheel of life, and I've made one more night," you could tell that he was grateful for it.
After a loose second set, Billy and Jill thanked everyone and put their guitars down. Billy took a seat on the first bench, sipping his beer while he struck up a conversation with our mutual friend Ryan. Ryan was quick on the introduction, and I soon found myself in a lengthy chat with Billy about some of his favourite people to play music with, and the road that led him to Nederland over the past thirty years since he left the East. I sat back and let him do most of the talking, so as to make sure it was a natural conversation between two bearded dudes in a bookshop, rather than an awkward interaction consisting of a longtime fan pestering a great musician. After a few minutes, Billy picked his guitar back up and strummed quietly while the half dozen or so of us who remained shot the breeze. Deciding this was a good time to leave, we zipped up our down coats and lowered our heads to soften the blow of the mountain wind as we slipped out the door.
Billy played on as the lone employee switched off the outside lights.